Blissful Death: Christmas chaos in Deathsmiles II

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

I’ve been wanting to play Deathsmiles II for many years now. I’ve been a big fan of the original Deathsmiles ever since I took a chance on picking up a copy of the Xbox 360 original primarily due to its attractive cover art, and ever since I heard there was a sequel I’ve been interested in playing it. However, the Japanese Xbox 360 version was never localised — although you could supposedly download the unlocalised version from the North American Games on Demand service.

Now, however, Deathsmiles II is here, fully localised — and I’ve even got a physical copy of it rather than a digital copy buried on an Xbox 360 hard drive. So I feel now’s about the right time to finally give this a go for the first time!

Deathsmiles II

Deathsmiles II first hit arcades in 2009, with its Xbox 360 version following almost exactly a year later. It was one of only a few shoot ’em ups from bullet hell veterans Cave to make use of a horizontally oriented monitor; the vast majority of Cave’s games are vertical shoot ’em ups that use a vertically oriented monitor for a narrow but tall display. It was also Cave’s first game to make use of polygonal visuals rather than sprites and bitmapped backgrounds, making it a noteworthy title in both Cave’s history and the evolution of the shoot ’em up.

Deathsmiles II’s story concerns the same group of angels seen in the first game. Cover girl Windia finds a young, lost-looking girl out in the street and takes her back to the manor where she and her friends live — but later that night the girls discover their adoptive grandfather has been critically injured. Not only that, but a precious treasure known as the Wishing Notes has been stolen — and, as everyone knows, being in possession of all the Wishing Notes and making use of them allows you to have any wish granted.

The villain of the piece is one Satan Claws (sic), who made use of the young girl to bait the angels and steal the Notes. Now, he’s making his escape in an attempt to use the Wishing Notes for himself — so it’s up to the angels to kick his roly-poly bottom back to Hell where it belongs and ensure the Wishing Notes are never used for evil purposes.

Deathsmiles II

Deathsmiles II’s mechanics are quite similar to the original game, with a few tweaks here and there. There are still the three types of shot — standard, beam and lock-on — and you’re still able to shoot to both the left and the right. The scoring mechanics have been simplified somewhat, however, which is welcome news; although the original Deathsmiles is, on the whole, a fairly accessible shoot ’em up to simply clear, actually attaining high scores is dependent on understanding a rather complex scoring system, and one which varies quite noticeably between its different variations, too!

In Deathsmiles II, most enemies release coloured rings when you destroy them. Some characters vary in functionality, but for the most part your standard shot releases red rings that build up a counter towards 1,000 points, which allows you to enter Power-Up mode, and your beam shot releases blue rings that increase your scoring value up to a maximum of 10,000. Entering Power-Up mode makes you invulnerable to everything except bullets, so it’s a good opportunity to go ham on swarms of enemies or bosses — just make sure you don’t clip a bullet, as this will cause you to lose your Power-Up and the corresponding score bonus!

The Lock-On shot in Deathsmiles II is the additional mechanic that more advanced players will want to explore. Many stages feature enemies that are lurking in the background; these can only be defeated by using the lock-on shot. When destroyed with the lock-on shot, these enemies release suicide bullets — but these bullets are cancelled when you release the lock-on shot button, converting them into additional rings. As you can probably imagine, combining the already high-scoring Power-Up mode with the increased scoring potential that comes from destroying background enemies and cancelling bullets with the lock-on shot is essential to high-level play.

Deathsmiles II

Sound complex? That’s a Cave shoot ’em up for you — though to Deathsmiles II’s credit, much like its predecessor, there’s no need to engage with all of these mechanics while you’re learning the game. It’s worth simply learning how to survive first — and in this regard, Deathsmiles II is actually a little easier than its predecessor. Once again, you can choose the difficulty level of each stage you tackle, and on the easiest level a one-credit clear will be within the reach of even most shoot ’em up newbies after an attempt or two.

Deathsmiles II is, like its predecessor, well-presented. Its polygonal visuals are fairly simple, but they do the job well, animate smoothly and provide the flexibility for some thrilling background animations during many of the levels. Many enemies have been deliberately designed to resemble the foes from the original that had a somewhat “hand-crafted” look to them, and there’s quite a Tim Burton-esque vibe to several of the levels and bosses — particularly the long-legged “Nice Man”.

The music is, once again, absolutely excellent — one would expect nothing less from a game with musical contributions from both Motoi Sakuraba and Manabu Namiki — and the little snippet of “Joy to the World” that plays as each boss bursts onto the screen is… well, joyful, really.

Deathsmiles II may be Christmas-themed, but it’s a shoot ’em up that can be enjoyed the whole year round. It’s arguably an even more newbie-friendly shoot ’em up than its predecessor, complex scoring mechanics aside, and thus if you’re looking for a fun introduction to bullet hell games, you could certainly do far worse than pick up the currently available compilation of both Deathsmiles and its sequel, available for most major platforms.

I’m very happy with how enjoyable Deathsmiles II ended up being. It seemed to be held in considerably less reverence than its illustrious predecessor, but I suspect a fair amount of that is down to the fact that for quite some time it was considerably less accessible for many players, especially in Europe. That all changes now, though — I’m here to tell you that Deathsmiles II is an excellent addition to any shoot ’em up collection, and that regardless of your feelings on any variety of end-year snow-covered holiday season, it’s reason for celebration in and of itself!

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Pete Davison
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